By Richard Keeble
We feel incredibly fortunate to have Richard Keeble, Professor of Journalism at the University of Lincoln, as an occasional blogger at Media Lens (www.Media Lens.org/weblog/) alongside Sharon Beder, Mark Curtis, David Miller and the Media Lens editors. Richard’s posts are always tremendous, but his latest submission, below, is so important and interesting that we feel it merits a much wider audience.
So how many journalists are actually agents of the state, or working for agents of the state? We can think of several very likely candidates – and not just in the right-wing media.
Hacks And Spooks – Close Encounters Of A Strange Kind
And so to Nottingham University (on Sunday 26 February) for a well-attended conference organised by the city’s Student Peace Movement. And what a great event it turns out to be! Lots of excellent speakers – including author and peace activist, Milan Rai, Alan Simpson MP, Dr Meryl Aldridge, of Nottingham University, and a representative of Notts Indymedia. And there’s lots of excellent, lively and constructive discussions.
I focus in my talk on the links between journalists and the intelligence services:
While it might be difficult to identify precisely the impact of the spooks (variously represented in the press as “intelligence”, “security”, “Whitehall” or “Home Office” sources) on mainstream politics and media, from the limited evidence it looks to be enormous.
As Roy Greenslade, media specialist at the Telegraph (formerly the Guardian), commented: “Most tabloid newspapers – or even newspapers in general – are playthings of MI5.” Bloch and Fitzgerald, in their examination of covert UK warfare, report the editor of “one of Britain’s most distinguished journals” as believing that more than half its foreign correspondents were on the MI6 payroll. And in 1991, Richard Norton-Taylor revealed in the Guardian that 500 prominent Britons paid by the CIA and the now defunct Bank of Commerce and Credit International, included 90 journalists.
In their analysis of the contemporary secret state, Dorril and Ramsay gave the media a crucial role. The heart of the secret state they identified as the security services, the cabinet office and upper echelons of the Home and Commonwealth Offices, the armed forces and Ministry of Defence, the nuclear power industry and its satellite ministries together a network of senior civil servants. As “satellites” of the secret state, their list included “agents of influence in the media, ranging from actual agents of the security services, conduits of official leaks, to senior journalists merely lusting after official praise and, perhaps, a knighthood at the end of their career”.
Phillip Knightley, author of a seminal history of the intelligence services, has even claimed that at least one intelligence agent is working on every Fleet Street newspaper.
A brief history
Going as far back as 1945, George Orwell no less became a war correspondent for the Observer — probably as a cover for intelligence work. Significantly most of the men he met in Paris on his assignment, Freddie Ayer, Malcolm Muggeridge, Ernest Hemingway were either working for the intelligence services or had close links to them. Stephen Dorril, in his seminal history of MI6, reports that Orwell attended a meeting in Paris of resistance fighters on behalf of David Astor, his editor at the Observer and leader of the intelligence service’s unit liasing with the French resistance.
The release of Public Record Office documents in 1995 about some of the operations of the MI6-financed propaganda unit, the Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, threw light on this secret body — which even Orwell aided by sending them a list of “crypto-communists”. Set up by the Labour government in 1948, it “ran” dozens of Fleet Street journalists and a vast array of news agencies across the globe until it was closed down by Foreign Secretary David Owen in 1977.
According to John Pilger in the anti-colonial struggles in Kenya, Malaya and Cyprus, IRD was so successful that the journalism served up as a record of those episodes was a cocktail of the distorted and false in which the real aims and often atrocious behaviour of the British intelligence agencies was hidden. And spy novelist John le Carré, who worked for MI6 between 1960 and 1964, has made the amazing statement that the British secret service then controlled large parts of the press – just as they may do today
In 1975, following Senate hearings on the CIA, the reports of the Senate’s Church Committee and the House of Representatives’ Pike Committee highlighted the extent of agency recruitment of both British and US journalists. And sources revealed that half the foreign staff of a British daily were on the MI6 payroll. David Leigh, in The Wilson Plot, his seminal study of the way in which the secret service smeared through the mainstream media and destabilised the Government of Harold Wilson before his sudden resignation in 1976, quotes an MI5 officer: “We have somebody in every office in Fleet Street”
And the most famous whistleblower of all, Peter (Spycatcher) Wright, revealed that MI5 had agents in newspapers and publishing companies whose main role was to warn them of any forthcoming “embarrassing publications”. Wright also disclosed that the Daily Mirror tycoon, Cecil King, “was a longstanding agent of ours” who “made it clear he would publish anything MI5 might care to leak in his direction”. Selective details about Wilson and his secretary, Marcia Falkender, were leaked by the intelligence services to sympathetic Fleet Street journalists. Wright comments: “No wonder Wilson was later to claim that he was the victim of a plot” King was also closely involved in a scheme in 1968 to oust Prime Minister Harold Wilson and replace him with a coalition headed by Lord Mountbatten
Hugh Cudlipp, editorial director of the Mirror from 1952 to 1974, was also closely linked to intelligence, according to Chris Horrie, in his recently published history of the newspaper. David Walker, the Mirror’s foreign correspondent in the 1950s, was named as an MI6 agent following a security scandal while another Mirror journalist, Stanley Bonnet, admitted working for MI5 in the 1980s investigating the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Maxwell and Mossad
According to Stephen Dorril, intelligence gathering during the miners’ strike of 1984-85 was helped by the fact that during the 1970s MI5’s F Branch had made a special effort to recruit industrial correspondents – with great success. In 1991, just before his mysterious death, Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell was accused by the US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of acting for Mossad, the Israeli secret service, though Dorril suggests his links with MI6 were equally as strong.
Following the resignation from the Guardian of Richard Gott, its literary editor in December 1994 in the wake of allegations that he was a paid agent of the KGB, the role of journalists as spies suddenly came under the media spotlight – and many of the leaks were fascinating. For instance, according to The Times editorial of 16 December 1994: “Many British journalists benefited from CIA or MI6 largesse during the Cold War.”
The intimate links between journalists and the secret services were highlighted in the autobiography of the eminent newscaster Sandy Gall. He reports without any qualms how, after returning from one of his reporting assignments to Afghanistan, he was asked to lunch by the head of MI6. “It was very informal, the cook was off so we had cold meat and salad with plenty of wine. He wanted to hear what I had to say about the war in Afghanistan. I was flattered, of course, and anxious to pass on what I could in terms of first-hand knowledge.”
And in January 2001, the renegade MI6 officer, Richard Tomlinson, claimed Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph and son of the former Tory chancellor, Nigel Lawson, provided journalistic cover for an MI6 officer on a mission to the Baltic to handle and debrief a young Russian diplomat who was spying for Britain. Lawson strongly denied the allegations.
Similarly in the reporting of Northern Ireland, there have been longstanding concerns over security service disinformation. Susan McKay, Northern editor of the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune, has criticised the reckless reporting of material from “dodgy security services”. She told a conference in Belfast in January 2003 organised by the National Union of Journalists and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission: “We need to be suspicious when people are so ready to provide information and that we are, in fact, not being used.” (www.nuj.org.uk/inner.php?docid=635)
Growing power of secret state
Thus from this evidence alone it is clear there has been a long history of links between hacks and spooks in both the UK and US. But as the secret state grows in power, through massive resourcing, through a whole raft of legislation – such as the Official Secrets Act, the anti-terrorism legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and so on – and as intelligence moves into the heart of Blair’s ruling clique so these links are even more significant.
Since September 11 all of Fleet Street has been awash in warnings by anonymous intelligence sources of terrorist threats. According to former Labour minister Michael Meacher, much of this disinformation was spread via sympathetic journalists by the Rockingham cell within the MoD. A parallel exercise, through the office of Special Plans, was set up by Donald Rumsfeld in the US. Thus there have been constant attempts to scare people – and justify still greater powers for the national security apparatus.
Similarly the disinformation about Iraq’s WMD was spread by dodgy intelligence sources via gullible journalists. Thus, to take just one example, Michael Evans, The Times defence correspondent, reported on 29 November 2002: “Saddam Hussein has ordered hundred of his officials to conceal weapons of mass destruction components in their homes to evade the prying eyes of the United Nations inspectors.” The source of these “revelations” was said to be “intelligence picked up from within Iraq”. Early in 2004, as the battle for control of Iraq continued with mounting casualties on both sides, it was revealed that many of the lies about Saddam Hussein’s supposed WMD had been fed to sympathetic journalists in the US, Britain and Australia by the exile group, the Iraqi National Congress.
Sexed up – and missed out
During the controversy that erupted following the end of the “war” and the death of the arms inspector Dr David Kelly (and the ensuing Hutton inquiry) the spotlight fell on BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan and the claim by one of his sources that the government (in collusion with the intelligence services) had “sexed up” a dossier justifying an attack on Iraq. The Hutton inquiry, its every twist and turn massively covered in the mainstream media, was the archetypal media spectacle that drew attention from the real issue: why did the Bush and Blair governments invade Iraq in the face of massive global opposition? But those facts will be forever secret. Significantly, too, the broader and more significant issue of mainstream journalists’ links with the intelligence services was ignored by the inquiry.
Significantly, on 26 May 2004, the New York Times carried a 1,200-word editorial admitting it had been duped in its coverage of WMD in the lead-up to the invasion by dubious Iraqi defectors, informants and exiles (though it failed to lay any blame on the US President: see Greenslade 2004). Chief among The Times’ dodgy informants was Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress and Pentagon favourite before his Baghdad house was raided by US forces on 20 May.
Then, in the Observer of 30 May 2004, David Rose admitted he had been the victim of a “calculated set-up” devised to foster the propaganda case for war. “In the 18 months before the invasion of March 2003, I dealt regularly with Chalabi and the INC and published stories based on interviews with men they said were defectors from Saddam’s regime.” And he concluded: “The information fog is thicker than in any previous war, as I know now from bitter personal experience. To any journalist being offered apparently sensational disclosures, especially from an anonymous intelligence source, I offer two words of advice: caveat emptor.”
Let’s not forget no British newspaper has followed the example of the NYT and apologised for being so easily duped by the intelligence services in the run up to the illegal invasion of Iraq.
Richard Keeble’s publications include Secret State, Silent Press: New Militarism, the Gulf and the Modern Image of Warfare (John Libbey 1997) and The Newspapers Handbook (Routledge, fourth edition, 2005). He is also the editor of Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics. Richard is also a member of the War and Media Network.